When Alex Epstein‘s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels arrived in my mailbox, I expected it to be bad.  For two reasons:

1. In my experience, readable books about climate change usually just demagogically preach to the choir.

2. I correctly surmised that Epstein was an Objectivist, and Objectivists’ policy work has long struck me as dogmatic, simplistic, and warped by anger.

Once I actually started the book, though, my negative expectations swiftly faded away.  The more I read, the more Epstein’s creation impressed me.  My final judgment: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels is the best book I’ve read all year, combining an important topic, thought-provoking evidence, and charming style.  The book has too much substance to cover in a single post, so I’m going to start by explaining the thesis, then explore his major contributions in followup posts.

Epstein’s book has two key claims.  His first claim is descriptive: Laymen and experts alike greatly underestimate the benefits of fossil fuels and greatly overestimate their costs:

[T]he “experts” almost always focus on the risks of a technology but never the benefits– and on top of that, those who predict the most risk get the most attention from the media and from politicians who want to “do something.”

But there is little to no focus on the benefits of cheap, reliable energy from fossil fuels.

This is a failure to think big picture, to consider all the benefits and all the risks. And the benefits of cheap, reliable energy to power the machines that civilization runs on are enormous. They are just as fundamental to life as food, clothing, shelter, and medical care – indeed, all of these require cheap, reliable energy. By failing to consider the benefits of fossil fuel energy, the experts didn’t anticipate the spectacular benefits that energy brought about in the last thirty years.

What spectacular benefits?  Rapid economic growth and reduction of absolute poverty in China and India, for starters.  But that only scratches the surface.

[W]hen we look at the data, a fascinating fact emerges: As we have used more fossil fuels, our resource situation, our environment situation, and our climate situation have been improving, too.

Won’t global warming put an end to this bonanza?  Epstein deals with the issue in detail, but the quick version is:

Here’s what we know. There is a greenhouse effect. It’s logarithmic. The temperature has increased very mildly and leveled off completely in recent years. The climate-prediction models are failures, especially models based on CO2 as the major climate driver, reflecting a failed attempt to sufficiently comprehend and predict an enormously complex system. But many professional organizations, scientists, and journalists have deliberately tried to manipulate us into equating the greenhouse effect with the predictions of invalid computer models based on their demonstrably faulty understanding of how CO2 actually affects climate.

Epstein’s second key claim is normative: Human well-being is the one fundamentally morally valuable thing.  Unspoiled nature is only great insofar as mankind enjoys it:

It is only thanks to cheap, plentiful, reliable energy that we live in an environment where the water we drink and the food we eat will not make us sick and where we can cope with the often hostile climate of Mother Nature. Energy is what we need to build sturdy homes, to purify water, to produce huge amounts of fresh food, to generate heat and air-conditioning, to irrigate deserts, to dry malaria-infested swamps, to build hospitals, and to manufacture pharmaceuticals, among many other things. And those of us who enjoy exploring the rest of nature should never forget that energy is what enables us to explore to our heart’s content, which preindustrial people didn’t have the time, wealth, energy, or technology to do.

Although Epstein doesn’t really defend this moral claim, he probably doesn’t need to.  Green slogans notwithstanding, almost all popular and/or academically prominent moral theories place heavy weight on human well-being.  And as Epstein keeps reminding us, energy is no frippery.  The people of
the less-developed world – over a billion of whom still lack
electricity – have an especially desperate need for cheap energy.  As long as Epstein’s descriptive claims are correct, there should be an “overlapping consensus” for fossil fuels.  You could even call fossil fuels the efficient, egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian way to power the world.

P.S. To repeat, for now I’m only stating Epstein’s thesis.  If you want his key arguments and evidence, wait for followup posts.  Or jump the queue and buy the book.